Cape Town – Truth be told, this match was marked more than anything by how much closer it has taken New Zealand to retaining the Castle Rugby Championship.
By failing to beat Australia in Perth on Saturday soon after the All Blacks earned a full house against Argentina, the Springboks not only surrendered marginal top spot on the table but also fell three points behind the new leaders, who entertain them in Albany next weekend and will naturally be quite heavily fancied to win.
But let’s keep the bigger picture in mind: by earning an error-strewn yet dramatic 23-23 stalemate against the Wallabies after a concerted second-half fightback, the Boks do still look particularly strong candidates for second place this year – a finish that would also confirm their steps in the right direction throughout 2017 thus far.
The result also meant that Allister Coetzee’s charges remain unbeaten – albeit only just -- after six internationals in the year, not the worst situation to take onward to the Land of the Long White Cloud; a shock victory there would set the cat right back among the pigeons, too.
As bad as they were in the first period in Perth (yes, a case of “2016 revisited” in disturbingly many respects), the new maturity and resolve of this year’s squad then came to the fore as they stormed back in the second 40 minutes to level-peg … and might even have grabbed victory with better composure.
Here’s how I rated the Boks out of 10 against Australia:
Andries Coetzee: 5
Not too conspicuously frail, but you could say that about several of his Bok showings this season, and the wait continues for a really classy all-round performance. Errors included a kick out on the full, scary kick charge-down under pressure, and once a loss of possession in contact.
Raymond Rhule: 6
Praise where due: another player yet to look really nailed down, but the right wing was tenacious in his often questionable area of defence in this one. One or two important tackles, good track-back graft and decent aggression for his relative lack of size.
Jesse Kriel: 6.5
A bit lateral at times with ball in hand, but enough slippery moments too. Ran clever angles, and collected own grubber for first Bok try. Defence perked up after inauspicious start.
Jan Serfontein: 6
Bit disappointing that he was hauled in by Michael Hooper during one break-out sprint for the try-line, and still prone to occasional lack of peripheral vision. Clever, constructive touches balanced his showing out, though.
Courtnall Skosan: 4
After this game … endangered! Part of a vulnerable back three all season, and here his shortcomings in aerial battle were significantly exposed. Two glaring blunders, and one effectively led to Kurtley Beale’s try.
Elton Jantjies: 4.5
Aargh. The flyhalf sadly wound the clock back here to the “old Elton”. Particularly shaky and erratic in the first half, and he either under- or over-cooked far too many of his kicks out of hand. Couple of decent touch-finders, and shots at goal pretty crisp.
Ross Cronje: 5.5
An intelligent player, he made the opportunistic break that led to first Bok try. Some of his passes were a tad looping, though, and it is a shame he lacks a half-yard in general pace.
Uzair Cassiem: 4.5
Too anonymous a lot of the time, especially in first 40 when Bok pack laboured for consistent go-forward. Certain good, understated touches, but was this evidence enough that the makeshift eighth-man is ready to go nose to nose with great Kieran Read? Hmm.
Jaco Kriel: 7
Got progressively livelier, confirming his stamina and relish for Test rugby. Pace is a real asset, and he was very alert once in arresting Will Genia as he squirmed for the try-line. Effective at some breakdowns. Lost ball once as a five-pointer seemed to beckon for him.
Siya Kolisi: 7.5
Slow-burner from him initially … but then really exploded into action as a senior leadership figure, inspiring all around him, when Boks woke up in second half. Rampaged very animatedly, and as former Bok skipper Jean de Villiers noted, he “forced himself on the game”.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 8
Some comeback from a once-staple Bok presence, who silenced those who queried the decision to rest yeoman workhorse Franco Mostert at No 5. Won penalty on deck in second minute to set personal tone, and just stayed busy and dynamic. Couple of purposeful pick-and-go initiatives, and placed strong lineout pressure on Aussies.
Eben Etzebeth: 6
By his high standards, this was one of his more subdued Tests. But he also kept his cool both at the coalface and in charge of the team, contributing in broadest terms to the visiting pack’s second-half redemption thrust.
Coenie Oosthuizen: 6.5
Struggled in some early scrums, and also conceded penalty that handed Wallabies lead at break. But the 2017 Coenie is also made of stern stuff: extremely high tackle count, and gradually came back into his own at scrum-time as well.
Malcolm Marx: 6.5
One or two lineouts went awry, but in physical terms the strapping Lions hooker was suitably assertive. Deserved his try from a powerful maul.
Tendai Mtawarira: 6
Decent, if not earth-shattering. The loose-head veteran leaked a penalty for offside, but won one after a strong left-shoulder at the set-piece and made a vital tackle once on charging opposite number Scotty Sio.
Jean-Luc du Preez & Steven Kitshoff: 7
The Boks were badly in need of more time on the front foot when these two big units entered the fray simultaneously in the 53rd minute, and they certainly helped provide it. Du Preez was pleasingly muscular and industrious in the tight-loose, whilst Kitshoff’s power scrummaging suddenly gave the set-piece proper, influential traction. Both should be well in the frame for starts in NZ.
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